Friday, October 1, 2010

Tarantino's Real Co-Author Dies--A Sally Menke Tribute

ONE OF MY FAVORITE films to teach is Pulp Fiction.  I like to screen it in writing classes when I'm talking about editing and/or authorship.  Who, I ask the students, is the author of Pulp Fiction

Sure, Quentin Tarantino is the director, and he co-wrote the screenplay with Roger Avary, but the most enduring authorial detail of that movie is the editing.  There is not a slow moment in the entire picture; the pacing is flawless.  The funky camera angles, the quick edits, the long shots, even the animated square Mia Wallace draws involve directing of course, but how they work in relation to each other, how they fit together to form the puzzle of Pulp Fiction is all editing.

Tarantino has acknowledged that his editing partnership with Sally Menke was a true collaboration.  He said it was impossible to know whose ideas were whose and who is responsible for what decision.  They worked closely on all of his films, but her work on Pulp Fiction is legendary.

Menke's body was found Wednesday at the bottom of a ravine in Griffith Canyon, likely the result of a fatal fall or a heatstroke.  It was around 113 degrees.

Nominated for an Oscar for her work on Pulp Fiction, Menke was loved by pretty much everyone.  In the "Extras" section of some of Tarantino's DVDs, one can find "Hi Sally" montages, where cast members look into the camera and greet the famed editor.

Editors of novels rarely get the props they deserve, except from the authors themselves.  Film editors may have it slightly better, but not much.  The star actor and the star director get so much attention, there is really none left over for the editor. 

In the case of Menke and Pulp Fiction, though, Menke's editing work functions not simply as a form of narrative but as its own kind of genre.  In addition to "dialogue," and "plot" and "character," one must, when viewing Pulp Fiction, consider the degree to which the editing actually makes the magic of the movie happen.  The editing becomes the movie's grammar; its mode of communication.  

I would argue, then, that the Tarantino style, the Tarantino voice, the Tarantino signature, is really less Tarantino and more Menke.

When Michael Dorris committed suicide, readers of his and Louise Erdrich wondered if Erdrich's novels would read any differently.  Both were up front about co-authoring everything.  One wonders now about future Tarantino films.  Will the death of Menke mean the death of Tarantino's Tarantinoness?

I doubt it, but I also fear that some of the best work in Tarantino films was not done by Tarantino.

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